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I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
I Finally Caved and Flew on the 'Worst Airline in America'
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JFK-MXP JUL 2019:
persistence has its AAdvantages
While pushiness is most certainly not my m.o., I'm no stranger to persistence. This played out to best effect about five years ago when I was trying to cash in just enough US Airways Dividend Miles for two business-class seats from D.C. to South Africa, without using British Airways (as the added fees and taxes for BA are so high that Axios awards are more like 'half-off' coupons). Every day I would call, and every day I would end up putting some sub-par reservation on hold. There might be a routing, for example, with business class from D.C. to Europe, then economy onward, but for the full 110,000 (?) miles needed for business. Or, maybe just a single award business seat available for each leg. We got very close with an agent attempting to route us on US via Brazil, then connecting to South African. But when she tried to pull the trigger, the computer said no. On the 30th day, however, I hit pay dirt in the form of two biz-class tickets from JFK to JNB, via HKG, on Cathay Pacific. For the price of DCA-JFK add-ons, well worth it!
While that trip was for a pal's 40th birthday, this year I needed tickets for my 50th in late June. Initially, an avgeek pal suggested I join her at the 2019 Paris Air Show. And she's not just an avgeek, but an incredibly well-connected industry muckety-muck. To think of the hospitality tents she could've gotten me into! Also on the agenda was a return to Lugano in Italian Switzerland. As devoted readers of the story know, this was where my maternal grandparents retired, a place I loved as a child, a place I'd not seen since I was 7. There were also plans to be in New York City the last weekend of June, when the 29th would see both my birthday and the celebratory zenith of the Stonewall Riots 50th anniversary.
As I began entering dates into the American Airlines AAdvantage interface in October 2018, it became clear the Paris Air Show was too ambitious for my means. Paris-Lugano-NYC was demanding far too many miles. July dates were just within reach, though. I thought Paris, where I landed on Earth, would still be crucial for this 50th birthday extravaganza, air show or no. But for Paris, I was looking at 200,000+ miles per person. What? I looked at other cities I might use, then take a train to Paris. Amsterdam? No. Brussels? No. On and on. Every city seemed to carry a painfully inflated miles cost. I was getting ready to think I'd not be able to use miles at all.
Instead, I took a Swissly unsentimental tack. How about ditching Paris altogether, as long as Lugano remained in the mix? And what did I find? Boom! Roundtrip out of New York, returning to DC, via Zurich, for 110,000 miles apiece in business, not on BA. Yes, please! I grabbed those American Airlines seats without hesitation, paying about $100 in fees. Mission accomplished! But, no....
I OFFERED A GRACIOUS GOOD-BYE
AND HUNG THE HELL UP
See, it wasn't persistence in searching for the tickets that paid off – though it certainly did. The real payoff comes later.
Using miles, I was prepared for an unconventional itinerary. The return, Zurich-Philadelphia-DC/National, was great. Outbound was a little more complicated: JFK to Boston in Flagship First on American's three-class transcon A321. Why not? Then down to PHL and on to Zurich. Another chance for Flagship First, if only for 30 minutes or so, seemed fine by me. I'm guessing the wrench in the itinerary machinery was due to AA's 737 MAX being grounded (which would also cause problems later in the summer for my Southwest Airlines debut). JFK-BOS-PHL-ZRH was replaced with JFK-DCA-PHL-ZRH. Aw, no more Flagship First. Still, Zurich was secured, so who cares about the routing? I did, once notified of the next schedule change: JFK-DCA-CLT-PHL-ZRH. On one hand, I was thrilled thinking I'd likely break some personal record for segments flown in a day. On the other, I was distressed that the flight from D.C. into Charlotte was due to arrive after the Charlotte flight to Philadelphia had already departed. On my AA app, the upcoming itinerary produced a spinning pinwheel and message that it was updating. For a couple weeks, this remained the case. Being a helpful fellow, I examined all sorts of permutations, wondering if I might be able to suggest some connection American was missing. (While helpful, this is evidence that I can also, possibly, be somewhat obnoxious.) I figured getting from JFK, an American hub, to PHL, an American hub, would be easy. I was wrong. Either flights were full, or American just wasn't dedicating much of its schedule to connecting these two cities. Not ready to give up and await my fate, which I guessed might include American deciding it could not accommodate me and refunding my miles, I kept at it.
Look! There's American's flight out of JFK to Milan (MXP).... There were quite a few seats remaining in business. MXP is also closer to Lugano than Zurich. And wouldn't American want to put my limbo itinerary to bed? Everybody wins, right? This is where the wee bit of persistence comes in. First I called the general reservation number to make this suggestion. "No, Sir. That would be re-routing. You can't do that. But I can cancel your reservation and refund your miles." No! My nightmare was coming true. I offered a gracious good-bye and hung the hell up. Perhaps I'd have better luck using the number for AAdvantage "elites"? I again explained the situation. "I'm sorry, Sir." Sorry? No! "I'm sorry I don't have two center seats together. I can only put you in a window, and the seat across the aisle from it." (Note: The layout of the plane in question, a 777-200, is 1-2-1.) He must've apologized a couple more times. His apologies kept crowding out my expressions of gratitude.
Even without my lowly AAdvantage Gold status, I'm guessing I would've eventually found a reservation agent on the regular number who would've made the change. The point is that if you believe you have a reasonable request, chances are you'll – eventually – find a reasonable agent who will execute it. You may have to phone a lot of frogs before you find that prince, though. That's all for my lecture, so how 'bout some photos of the actual trip?
Another visit to the forbidden city of Fortress Flagship! Our June 2018 visit at LAX included Flagship Dining. Because, well, them's the rules. This time, were allowed entry as international business-class passengers. But no dining for you! Except for the buffet. Go nuts at the buffet. The bar side with all the lovely lanterns wasn't open, but the rest of this shiny new space welcomed us warmly. At the end of the entry hall, we were at least able to sneak a tiny peasant peek into Flagship Dining. Don't tell!
My primary regret upon entering the Flagship Lounge was that Count von Count of Sesame Street was not with us. It would've been mighty helpful to have him tally the different types of chairs/seating. So many options!
So, no Flagship Dining, but plenty to chew on. Sweet, savory, whatever tickles your fancy. Nothing looked particularly compelling to me, so I can't offer any review of the culinary offerings. Salmon with leek pesto? Oregon filled my salmon quota for the rest of my life. Roasted potatoes and leeks? In the middle of summer? Meh.... I've run the numbers and I can assure everyone I'm getting plenty to eat as it is. Don't you worry 'bout me.
With the main bar area closed, we still had an abundance of choices. I stuck with the Champagne. Goes with everything! Besserat de Bellefon, I believe. Brut Grande Tradition? I'm just here for the bubbles.
It's a room with a view! Plenty of windows allow for hours of plane-spotting while sipping Champers and fondling your jet-setting passport. As one does. Notably, that Cathay Pacific 777 had a lightning-fast turnaround of just about an hour. Saw the whole thing! (Then again, might have just unloaded before heading over to a hangar for tuneup.)
The time always comes when you've got to rejoin the real world. In Terminal 8, that meant plenty of advertising for the THE NEW FLAGSHIP LOUNGE. Passed a complimentary 'Refuel & Refresh' cart at a random gate. Those always make me sad, wondering what might've necessitated its appearance. Severe delay? Catering snafu? I will never know. Finally, got a peek at the perfect 2019 American vacation souvenir: vinyl! Tell 'em you picked up that Commodores album at a funky shop in the Village. They'll never know.
Soon enough, we boarded. This American Airlines 777-200 business seat has so much storage! At least, this plane did, featuring B/E Aerospace Super Diamond Seats. In Magic Box No. 1, please find a standard amenity kit! (Sorry, I never open these, so I can't show you what's inside. I hoard them as an offering for overnight guests. So, fair warning if you ever sample my hospitality; you may end up with a decade-old mini tube of Crest and a 'Hello Kitty' sized ridiculous toothbrush.) Open Magic Box No. 2 for the remote – and ports! Not the remote for the chair, of course. That's the little screen that sits outside Magic Box No. 2. I can never seem to feel comfortable with the bed option, so I also go for something a bit more 'La-Z-Boy' recliner. Sleeping all tucked in, in a cabin full of strangers, makes me feel too vulnerable. I was quite likely a prison inmate in a past life. Sleeping while sitting up, however, comes naturally. Which tells me I was also likely a dozing grampa in a past life. If you want a glamour shot of the whole seat, please bug American.
Firmly in my seat, I began – with my PDB! – to enjoy the view, both 2- and 3-dimensional. Norwegian, Alitalia, and China Eastern were all there to see us off. It was difficult to devote my full attention to plane-spotting, however, when American is offering me live TV. All the news I can eat with a spoon! Perhaps it's an addiction. Some yell at the TV for a touchdown. To get a rise out of me takes a congressional hearing or the 'Friday news dump.' And while Champagne pairs beautifully with 'Moonlight,' I'd already seen it, so instead chose a non-taxing French comedy, 'Qu'est-ce qu'on a encore fait' (Serial Bad Weddings 2), which played to my globalist values.
Special mention goes to the American Airlines safety video. It's very 'handsy' artistry strikes me as a goofy bit of 'mimes run amok.' But in Italian, it takes on a very odd kinky porn feel. Especially the digital seatbelt. Why is he smoking what looks like a giant spliff? At least it does its job and gets your attention!
Away we go! An early summer vodka-tonic with warm nuts as we climb out over the Atlantic? Happy Birthday to me! I can't imagine a better happy hour.
Some people want menus. So, please, have some menus. This is what was on offer July 2019, JFK-MXP. I pre-ordered, as is my rule.
The shrimp was summery. The pretzel roll was carblicious. The chicken wasn't too dry and the sweet potatoes were bursting with lycopene. It was all perfectly fine. All the more so, thanks to real glassware and metal utensils. As usual, the standout star was the custom sundae. It may be a humble, unpretentious offering, but nearly impossible to ruin. No wonder American isn't the only airline with this signature treat. Isn't it beautiful??
After dinner, the gentle hues of dimmed blue offer a visual lullaby. But first, a visit to the facilities. While some airborne lavatories seem little more than fluorescent closets with plumbing, the ample space, wood-like accents, ceramic-like sink, and full-length mirror in this 777-200 j-class lav are downright civilized.
While I tried to sleep, I mostly lay comfortably with my eyes closed for a couple hours. Fake it till you make it...? The reward for my efforts was a glorious European sunrise. I enjoyed it mightily along with another AA-signature item: the buttermilk biscuit. And the yogurt breakfast, of course, as I plan to live to 500, without ailments.
Shortly after, we were on the ground at MXP, docked at a sort gate/tower, B10 (Bingo!). We descended the tower, which was doing its best to mask the season's heatwave, evident even at dawn. Our waiting bus bumbled us over immigration in the main terminal, where luggage and bureaucracy were quickly collected and completed, respectively.
With no rush and no MXP Admirals Club to welcome us with shower suites, we navigated through the terminal to find respite at the Sheraton Milan Malpensa Airport Hotel & Conference Center. We weren't looking for a room, just something easy to get to and quieter than the terminal. In my experience, terminal-connected hotels usually fill the bill. After a cappuccino at the property's Il Canneto, we trudged to MXP's rail station and grabbed two direct tickets to our final destination, Lugano, Switzerland.